The Loom

Scientists Armed With Frames

I’ve just spent part of this evening pondering a commentary in the new issue of the journal Science by fellow Sciencebloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet called “Framing Science.” (The paper is behind a firewall–yeck–but Matt has expounded on similar notes here.) They argue that scientists make a mistake of just trying to dump technical complexities on the public. They should be defining hot-button issues such as stem cells or global warming so as to resonate with “core values.”

As a science writer who doesn’t deal much in political reporting, I’m with them–but only up to a point, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I find framing science a bit murky. Nisbet and Mooney tell us that scientists must frame, but for what? They don’t actually say what the goal of framing is, and their implications are hard to turn into a clear picture.

They hint at different sorts of goals for different scientific issues. In the case of global warming, Mooney and Nisbet imply that scientists must frame in order to make the public accept the validity of the science. In the case of stem cells, however, the successful framing in terms of social progress led, they write, to public support of funding for research. In one case, scientists are framing for Truth, I guess, and in another they are framing for Money?

I think framing science is definitely important down at a very simple, basic level. It’s what I do when I write a lede–I try to lasso the attention of a reader. Scientists have a surprisingly hard time thinking in these terms. I guess it’s the result of spending all one’s days pondering very difficult subjects, doing intricate experiments, and writing impenetrable papers. Scientists have a tough time explaining in simple terms what they do and why they do it and why it interests them. I know–I keep asking them, and in many case they respond with odd little pauses, pregnant with surprise.

I recently ran a workshop for some science graduate students on writing for the lay audience, and many of them agreed that this was very hard for them. Part of the problem was simply getting them to use ordinary, non-scientific language. Beyond DNA and gravity, just about every scientific term in an article has to be defined as soon as it’s introduced. These science-writing basics were surprisingly hard for the students to put into practise.

I suppose more elaborate framing may be effective for scientists when they testify in front of Congress or go on talk radio, for whatever goals they decide to achieve. But if I call someone up for an interview and get a lot of buzzwords, my journalistic hackles will definitely be raised. I’ve had enough experiences with scientists who wanted to tell me what my story should be. In some cases, they clearly thought the entire piece ought to be arranged around themselves, with all evidence pointing towards their own awesome brilliance. In other cases, I got the feeling that the person on the other end of the line had visions of my article clipped to his or her next grant application. It’s my job to resist that sort of pressure and talk to a lot of experts with different ideas backed up by good research. I suspect a lot of science writers would also react suspiciously to an oncoming frame.

Certainly scientists should think about why the rest of the world ought to care about their research. Certainly they should think about how it will get sucked into the political blender (and how they might want to jump in after it). But framing doesn’t seem like quite the right response to the fact that over two-thirds of people in this country don’t know enough about science to understand a newspaper story on a scientific subject. It seems more like surrender to me. Fixing high school science education seems a better plan. Don’t let kids come out of high school without knowing that a laser emits light, not sound; without knowing about standard deviations; without knowing what a stem cell is. Fixing high school science would be a lot harder than staying on message, but it would be a lot more important.

Comments

  1. #1 Torbj�rn Larsson
    April 6, 2007

    I’m with them–but only up to a point, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I find framing science a bit murky.

    I’m not used to the important meta-debate on how to do debates, but that was about as far my own analysis had proceeded.

    Framing seems to mean to offer a context, often implicitly taken to mean social, that suits certain reader groups. The message is presented within the frame. Another often used term, spin, would seem to imply to distort the message to suit the purpose, for example by leaving out existing data.

    And I note that a “scientific frame” is a frame too. The original post is somewhat suggesting conflating social issues frames with other uses, which is confusing.

    It’s what I do when I write a lede–I try to lasso the attention of a reader.

    Another good suggestion. I had to look it up, but it seems to be a well tested style of presentation.

    It could be beneficial for scientists to suggest or even help construct frames in areas where it is a political debate or social issue. As Pielke says on Cosmic Log “This is exactly how humans filter information”.

    But I don’t think scientists must necessarily use these social frames except when they want to contribute directly to such debates within the chosen frame. Of course, it should be important for scientists to influence how science is discussed and used.

    Blogging and other new media will diversify both debates and how they are done. Frames and ledes are important here, as is scientist participation, but in the ways they feel they can do it best. Take PZ Myers, he sometimes wants to provoke instead of tend to the usual frames of parts of the audience. Or Dawkins, who opens up a larger debate by moving one of the extreme positions in a similar manner.

    Part of the problem was simply getting them to use ordinary, non-scientific language.

    I just stumbled on a good reason for that which I haven’t fully appreciated before.

    In a science blog the poster commented on using the term “‘slipper shaped’: one of those really annoying, culturally specific terms that requires you to know exactly what a slipper is in the first place.” ( http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2007/04/your_triassic_armadillodiles.php )

    So not only does good science terms benefit from being neutral (see for example the trouble with “theory”) and well-defined, they should also be free from cultural context to suit non-native people.

    The differences in presentation style may be hard to handle. Which is perhaps why science journalists can influence the blogosphere. ;-)

  2. #2 Chris Mooney
    April 6, 2007

    Thanks Carl for the thoughtful response. This issue of the role of science education is one that we would have addressed if we’d had space in the Science piece (which alas was necessarily brief). We’re going to do a reply that will address this argument of yours, and others that have come up. Meanwhile, I’ve posted a list of resources that elaborate on the argument that Matt and I were making:
    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2007/04/framing_science_additional_res.php

  3. #3 xebecs
    April 6, 2007

    With respect, Dr. Larsson, I don’t see how culturally-specific terms like “slipper” can be avoided.

    To achieve meaningful framing for a particular lay audience while at the same time avoiding scientific jargon, isn’t it possible that the *only* technique remaining is to use highly evocative, culturally-specific examples, metaphors and analogies?

    That’s been my experience, anyway, although admittedly it has involved teaching about computers and programming and (long ago) math, rather than science.

    I would choose multiple sets of powerful tools, customized to the circumstance, over a set of weaker tools that fits all occasions.

  4. #4 Jud
    April 6, 2007

    CZ: “Scientists have a tough time explaining in simple terms what they do and why they do it and why it interests them. I know–I keep asking them, and in many case they respond with odd little pauses, pregnant with surprise.”

    So Carl, what is it that you enjoy about writing in general, and writing about science in particular? Would you want to pause a bit before answering a question that, after all, is about how you’ve decided to spend your life? Might you be just a little surprised that someone would ask why you enjoy something that, to you, is self-evidently wonderful?

    Oh, and about those simple, non-technical terms – “I think framing science is definitely important down at a very simple, basic level. It’s what I do when I write a lede–I try to lasso the attention of a reader.” So what, for the non-article-writers in the audience, is a “lede”? And for the non-cowboys, a “lasso”?

    Now all the foregoing is just meant to be poking a bit of fun, to get everyone considering that maybe those pregnant pauses and use of technical terms by scientists are quite understandable reactions when you think about it. I fervently agree with you about a solution to the problem of public understanding of scientific issues (or at least one very important aspect of the solution): improved science education.

  5. #5 RPM
    April 6, 2007

    Carl, there is an important distinction between scientists explaining something to a science writer that he/she will write about in an article for the general public AND and scientists framing an issue for public debate. When you write an article about, say, butterfly migration, the author of the scientific paper may want you to present the story a certain way. But you aren’t presenting something that is a politically contentious issue. Scientists need to frame the scientific concensus on global warming, evolution, etc to make the public realize that there is no debate. You’re comparing two very different things.

  6. #6 Carl Zimmer
    April 6, 2007

    RPM: I’m not seeing such a big distinction there. Say I interview someone on butterfly migration. I say, “Why is this research significant?” A few answers are possible, depending on how the scientist wants to frame the issue. One is, “This adds further evidence that magnetoreception plays an important role in insect migration.” Another is, “This demonstrates how vulnerable butterfly populations are to habitat destruction, because all the places they migrate to are essential to their survival.” What a scientist says to a journalist can end up helping to shape a public debate, because it may end up in a newspaper that a lot of people read.

  7. #7 Greg Peterson
    April 6, 2007

    For whatever it’s worth, I think one of the best ways to approach science literacy is through stories. Sean Carrol (the biologist, not the physicist) wrote a great story about bloodless ice fish in “The Making of the Fittest,” and that did more to help me understand evolution than any number of charts and equations would have. The story about the guy who came up with the idea of the PAH world (I just recall him as “Nick from Australi”)is more memorable because of the interesting personal context. Carl, your books are filled with fascinating stories–the characters in “Soul Made Flesh,” the living things in “Parasite Rex” and “At the Water’s Edge.” Any information that can become part of a story has a shot at being understood and remembered. Maybe that goes without saying, but the mistake I think I’ve seen some scientists make is trying to present disembodied, bloodless information. That’s not the sort of beings humans are, for the most part. We like a good narrative…some gossip about our ancestors, say.

  8. #8 Dave Rintoul
    April 6, 2007

    Thanks, Carl, for “framing” this debate for all of us.

    I guess I am still not quite convinced that working scientists, with little or no training in rhetoric, journalism, or advertising methodology, should be charged with explaining their work to the man on the street. Especially when, as you point out, the man on the street probably couldn’t draw the structure of carbon dioxide if you spotted him the “C”.

    I agree that part of the solution would be to beef up the teaching of science at the elementary and high school levels. An audience that understands a few basics is an easier audience to reach. Science education could definitely be improved.

    But another party also bears part of the blame, and that would be the journalists. Because many of them are educated to the same pitiful level that characterizes our current populace, they don’t know enough to detect pseudoscience (which leads to the ridiculous “balanced” treatment epitomized by interviewing a scientist and a creationist on the topic of evolution). And they don’t often ask the right questions. Since they are trained in exactly the things that scientists are lacking (the aforementioned rhetoric and communication skills), in a rational world they would be the intermediaries between a working scientist and the man on the street. So increasing the scientific literacy of journalists might also be a part of the solution.

  9. #9 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 6, 2007

    With respect, Dr. Larsson, I don’t see how culturally-specific terms like “slipper” can be avoided.

    You got my title pinned down, I see. (Not that I’m a biologist; “slipper’s” aren’t my area! ;-)

    Yes, I agree, which is why I said “good terms”, and provided a counter example. We can but strive towards meaningful ideals.

    I think we agree on much of the rest as well. The contexts (and results) should influence the methods.

    What I’m not sure about is that scientists need to address the public directly often. Do you want to make Carl, or other communicators and educators, without jobs? ;-)

  10. #10 llewelly
    April 7, 2007

    Carl:

    I’m not seeing such a big distinction there. Say I interview someone on butterfly migration. I say, “Why is this research significant?” A few answers are possible, depending on how the scientist wants to frame the issue. One is, “This adds further evidence that magnetoreception plays an important role in insect migration.” Another is, “This demonstrates how vulnerable butterfly populations are to habitat destruction, because all the places they migrate to are essential to their survival.”

    Both frames leave out the obvious attention-getters. Try: “These butterflies are important pollinators. If they stopped coming to this area, certain plants couldn’t have sex. And the other animals that feed on those plants could die.”

  11. #11 Blake Stacey
    April 7, 2007

    Regular Language Log readers will know that Mark Liberman, a linguist and a clear communicator himself, has tracked a great deal of bad science reporting and arrived at some melancholy conclusions.

    Seeded by a breezy Daily Mail article that didn’t even get the author’s name and book title right, two pieces of quantitative psych-lore have been spreading through the world’s media over the past few days [November 2006]: women talk three times as much as men, and men think of sex every 52 seconds, compared to once a day for women. These “facts”, we’ve been told by Matt Drudge and fark.com and dozens of newspapers and CNN, the BBC and NPR, have been “discovered” or “confirmed” by Dr. Louann Brizendine’s scientific studies.

    The public reaction has mostly been that this is like doing experiments to discover that the sun rises in the east, or to confirm that animals deprived of food will starve. In fact, however, the “facts” about word counts and sexual thoughts are false: Louann Brizendine hasn’t done any research on either topic, the sources she cites contain no relevant evidence, and existing studies contradict her claims. [Sources included in original text]

    But to insist on the concept of “fact” in this context is a recipe for frustration. As I’ve watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine’s book over the past few months, I’ve concluded that “scientific studies” like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It’s only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they’re true. For most people, it’s only important that they’re morally instructive.

    In amongst all this talk of what scientists should do and how scientists should explain themselves, what’s being done to train new science writers and make it more profitable for media organizations to report actual, factual discoveries? Are we to assume that “framing” knowledge in the right way will make it propagate without error through a flawed system?

  12. #12 Chris Mooney
    April 7, 2007

    Hi Carl,
    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Sorry to take so long to reply. Anyway, I think that Matt and I would argue that when it comes to framing vs education, it’s not an either-or. I elaborate in my reply to you here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2007/04/framing_science_some_replies_1.php

  13. #13 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 8, 2007

    Hi all,
    At the link below, I have a round up and some reactions to the major blog debate that has launched over the past 72 hours.

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/04/dont_be_a_dodo_bloggers_weigh.php

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2007

    Yes, you don’t need to to define DNA but how often would a reader’s definition … if asked … be acceptable to the scientists who’s work you are reporting? Same with gravity (and all other forces of nature, I would guess…).

    I think Nesbit and Mooney are trying to do something that is explicitly NOT surrender. But I have to agree with you that it might turn out to be so.

    My issue with this discussion is that the “frame” is actually a useful and powerful concept in it’s original form … see these two posts …

    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=667
    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=669

    … useful in understanding how individuals, while communicating, pass “meaning” back and forth without totally screwing it up. Or, how meaning does get screwed up. Or, how one can manage the generation of meaning by paying attention to the “Frame” in which a discussion is happening.

    In any event, great post!

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    April 30, 2007

    Framing” has been presented with all the subtlety and enthusiasm of a California fad: gee, why aren’t scientists & science writers jumping on with the kewl kidz?

    Part of the problem is that much of “framing” comes straight out of a ’70s-’80s Breakthrough(tm) fondly remembered as Neuro-Linguistic Programming: one of its key texts was ReFraming by UC Santa Cruz academics Richard Bandler & John Grinder. The NLP well ran dry – hmmm, let’s say its frame rotted – around the time of Bandler’s homicide trial in ’88.

    The French launched a devastating deconstructionist attack on metaconcepts in the ’80s; the East Coast seized a chunk of the ’90s with “Emotional Intelligence”(tm); now Lakoff leads a counterstrike from Berkeley. Workshops are beld and consultants are being hired: the verbo-industrialist complex has a full roster of Breakthroughz(tm) to benefit us all, just as they’ve always assured us.

    Though embarrassingly easy to mock, ?framing? has a facet of usefulness (as do EmotIntel & even NLP, not to mention the phenomena called hypnosis from which the latter was extracted). If you want to study this with intellectual respectability, start with Aristotle?s Rhetoric; if you need to bypass theory and go straight to application, proceed to the business section of your favorite independent bookstore or library and look for anything about sales techniques. Either way, you won?t need Lakoff any more.

    As Matt Nisbet shows, presenting lots of thoroughly-analyzed data is the way to a scientist?s head – the problem is that the ?framers? neglect much of the research already in hand. Decades of R&D, costing billions of dollars, have been refined with detailed field work, yielding fairly reliable methodologies. The proven technologies of persuasion includes a spectrum from reasoning to rhyme; repetition seems highly effective; juxtaposition to bright colors and attractive faces & bodies usually gets the quickest response; etc, etc. Such seem to be the characteristics of the idea-space shared by science, politics & culture: adapt to them or die.

    Except, of course, scientists don?t like the implications of this model: in such an environment science itself would never have arisen. Our collective intelligence is more than those handles of it whereby humans manipulate other humans, as groups or even individually. Science?s competitive appeal in the marketplace of hedonism is the pleasure of finding things out and the payback of long-term usefulness: a viable niche, and one that can be expanded, but of little immediate use in the current world emergency.

    Politically, science would seem well advised to seek allies and build coalitions – except, alas, that it is institutionally structured otherwise. As a power player, science has less organization and leadership than, say, teamsters or teachers, but more than, oh, welfare mothers or Galapagos tortoises. Formal advocacy and action are strategically constrained by the dependence inherent in reliance on funds from grant programs, corporations, universities, etc. Science as a distinct interest group barely exists.

    Conceptually and culturally, ?science? is much stronger. Doubtless its approval ratings top those of any current presidential candidate and most electronic appliances. Despite the direct opposition of the superstitious, its primary problem in meme-space is parasitism: the countless counterfeits exploiting the brandname to sell nostrums, ideologies and other Breakthroughz(tm).

    Science needs attractive images, a strong interest group, political oomph… hmmm.

    My nominee for the Cause to be joined can be framed in one word: kids. If every scientist could describe how their work is of benefit to The Future, as exemplified by America?s Children(tm), and made an effort to promote that advantage to the public at each opportunity, the framing/marketing/rhetoric would practically write itself.